You meant a lot to Anton, which means a lot to me. …
One of the few things that would make his day was you, and mashed potatoes. …
I don’t know how to thank you but I will keep trying until I get it right. …
I can never thank you enough! But I can thank you for being there as a friend to Anton. He really loved you. Every day at the hospital was a pain for Anton, but he always seemed happy, especially when you walked through the door.
— Kenya Delgado
The above excerpts are from a letter of thanks written by Kenya Delgado, 12, of Texas, to Kyle Rudolph, who has been selected as the 2018 Vikings Community Man of the Year and the team’s nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
She first met Kyle during a visit by the Vikings tight end to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital while her brother was undergoing treatment in 2015.
Kyle didn’t know those words — and other heartfelt notes of thanks — were waiting on him when he walked into Twin Cities Orthopedics Studios one morning before the day’s meetings started.
The reliably composed tight end sat down and was presented a folder. Nondescript on the outside, the folder’s contents were anything but.
Words from Kenya, her 8-year-old brother, Judah, and their mother, Vanessa, reminded Kyle of his small friend who faced such tough challenges and never backed down but passed away at age 5.
There were notes from other patients and their family members, reconnections with people from his hometown of Cincinnati and Elder High School, former Notre Dame Head Coach Charlie Weis, and Kyle’s wife, Jordan.
The Rudolphs have twin daughters and a son on the way, but helping the patients and their families remains a priority. Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone, which opened in March 2018 after more than a year of fundraising ($1.6 million), has provided a place of respite, and the entire Rudolph family brightens spirits during multiple visits throughout the year.
The ink — handwritten or typed — made the tattooed tough guy tap his feet, shift positions multiple times and tear up.
As the gratitude gushed from page to page, so did he.
“My wife doesn’t even see me cry much,” Kyle explained, still full of emotion just moments after reading the final note. “She could probably tell you she could count on one hand — we’ve known each other for almost 10 years. She got mad at me because I didn’t cry at our wedding. It’s just not something I do, but when you hear from so many people that you love, you hear their appreciation, it means a lot.
“It’s why we do what we do,” he added. “We just want to impact these people’s lives, whether it’s the patients, the families, anyone in the Twin Cities, to be quite honest. This is home for us, and we just want to do what we can to help others, no matter what they’re struggling with.”
Time was short, and the outlook was bleak.
It didn’t matter that Anton and the Delgado family had been able to attend Minnesota’s Nov. 8, 2015, victory against the St. Louis Rams.
A month later, as Kyle and teammates were en route for a Dec. 10 game at Arizona, Jordan let him know via phone call that there was nothing doctors could do to save Anton’s life.
“Without any hesitation in his voice, he was like, ‘I’ll be there.’ I don’t even know what time they got home [from Arizona]; it was probably 3 or 4 in the morning, and he told me he couldn’t sleep. He went and got bagels and donuts and was at that hospital by 7.”
In addition to breakfast just hours after returning from a 23-20 loss, Kyle brought the jersey from the 2013 Pro Bowl when he won MVP honors.
Before presenting it to Anton, Kyle wrote:
From a Pro Bowl MVP to a real life MVP.
Anton passed away Dec. 15, 2015. He was buried in a Vikings Kyle Rudolph jersey.
Jordan said she thinks Kyle chose to give Anton the jersey because, “Kyle has said it numerous times, whether it’s in our press conferences there or to the kids alone, they’re the MVPs. They’re like, ‘Who is your super hero?’ ‘Well, you are. You guys go through some tough stuff.’ ”
The Delgado family can’t stop appreciating Kyle’s willingness to be there, in person, with them when death was certain but the timing wasn’t known.
“We honestly had no idea [when Anton was going to pass away] and let him know that,” Vanessa Delgado recalled. “His willingness to step into hard places, there’s a lot of people who would run from that. … He could have said, ‘Hey we’re thinking of you, we’re praying for you,’ but instead he offered to step into this really hard place that I don’t think would have been easy for a lot of people to do.
“Anton, at this point, was sleeping most of the time, and he opened his eyes and looked at Kyle and looked at the Pro Bowl jersey that Kyle gave him,” Vanessa added. “It was probably one of the last three smiles, I think, of his life.”
The friendship between Kyle and Anton was so natural that Kyle became part of the Delgado family, understanding their grief and sharing their sorrow.
“Kyle gave Anton that gift of friendship, his Pro Bowl jersey and time. He offered to be there with us and sit there with us during hard things,” Vanessa said. “I think that’s one of my memories with Kyle that I’ll treasure forever, that he didn’t do the easy thing, which would have been, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of you guys,’ and send some flowers, but he stepped into Anton’s room, a place death was coming.
“We were going through hard things, and he uplifted all of our spirits and attitudes that day by hanging out with us. His character shows up in that because he didn’t show up with media, he didn’t post it on social media. We actually asked permission to put it on Anton’s page. It wasn’t, ‘Look what I’m doing. I’m hanging out with kids who are sick.’ He was Anton’s friend.”
Kyle was grateful that he made it back to visit Anton one final time.
“The biggest thing when I found out that there wasn’t much time, I thought I wasn’t going to make it back from Arizona in time, so to be able to get back and spend time with the family and to see Anton — he couldn’t say much, but his smile pretty much said it all,” Kyle said.
It has been almost three full years since Anton passed away, but his spirit and courage live on.
In 2016, Kyle used his “My Cause My Cleats” platform to display “Anton Tough,” a catch phrase that sprouted when it was written by a nurse during the child’s final week.
“That was huge for us because he definitely is one of the bravest, toughest people in the world,” Vanessa said of the son she and her husband, Jason, adopted from Russia. “His skin condition left him with open wounds all over his body, comparable to third-degree burns, so from the time he was born to the time he was 5 years old, it’s a life of pain and narcotics to cope and really hard things, but you never would have known, meeting him.
“He was the happiest, most joyful person in the world and never was down,” she added. “So Anton Tough became his catch phrase and slogan, and that has just translated into all of our lives. We can do hard things. We can go through things that we don’t want to go through and walk them out with grace because Anton showed us all of that because he was the toughest person we all had met.”
Kyle has an innate ability to connect with patients and families. His brother, Casey, survived pediatric cancer. Kyle, who was young at the time, has since learned what it was like for his brother and their parents.
The sincere bonds developed help inspire patients like Nathan Njoroge, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in March 2017.
“He’s gone through multiple chemotherapy sessions, he’s gone through surgery, two transplants, radiation, and now is working to better his immune system,” said Nathan’s father, Edwin. “He’s pushing and charging and doing what it takes to get better and staying positive. He’s a kid that does all this and knows when he gets visits like that, they make him push harder and harder in life.”
Nathan created a handmade newsletter, complete with photos, to express his appreciation to Kyle.
University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital Director of Development Nick Engbloom said Kyle makes the hospital “feel lighter” during visits.
“The hospital can be a very heavy place to be. There are many things going on, from diagnoses that might not be positive and things that put families in troubling times,” Engbloom said, “but when Kyle Rudolph is present and we’re doing events with him, it makes the hospital feel lighter and takes a burden off everyone’s shoulders, not just patients but staff, families, doctors, nurses, everybody here. It just becomes a lighter experience.”
Nurse Cindy Osborn concurred. She has seen the Rudolph family visit with patients in the postpartum wing.
“I think what made it so impactful is because it was fresh for Kyle and Jordan with their daughters, and it really made an impact on this family to come talk about their birth stories, which is really important for women, and they could sit and chat and be so comfortable.”
From their repeated visits, the Rudolphs wanted to create a space for patients and family members to escape the stresses of challenging medical conditions.
In planning Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone, the Rudolphs met with the hospital’s Kids’ Council, which is made up of patients, past patients and siblings.
“We were like, ‘Don’t hold back. Give us all of your ideas,’ Yes, there are some things we can’t do because of regulations, like a skate park,” Jordan explained. “That’s not quite something we could do. Zip line, we couldn’t do. Basically what we got from it is kids wanted to be active. They wanted to go in there and be kids. They wanted a space that was theirs.”
The space includes a basketball hoop, sports simulator, bubble hockey table, sensory space for patients on the autism spectrum, a lounge, video game consoles, space for arts and crafts and a family kitchen.
Those are the visible amenities. The impact of Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone, however, runs much deeper.
Ashley Baltzell wrote that the End Zone has made her son, Cooper, “so much happier during hospitalizations.”
“It’s a place that he can decompress after going through medical procedures, and most importantly, a place he can go to where he actually forgets that he is in the hospital,” Baltzell wrote. “Cooper becomes a different kid when he visits; he doesn’t have anxiety about which doctor will come in the door next, or which procedure will come next. Cooper is able to just be a kid and PLAY without any fears.”
Kyle said it’s been “pretty incredible” to see the End Zone surpass their initial goals for the space, having already received nearly 4,000 visits.
“I don’t think we thought it would go as well as it has, and that’s a testament to the hospital staff, to the Kids’ Council that we met with,” Kyle said.
The primary questions that the Rudolphs asked the Kids’ Council were, ‘What are some things that if you weren’t in the hospital and you were at home, what would you want to be doing?’ and ‘How would you be living your life normally?’
“I think the best feedback that we’ve gotten so far … a mother told Jordan and I, ‘When we leave here, [my son] complains that he doesn’t want to go back to the hospital.’ He believes when he’s in the End Zone that he’s not in the hospital,” Kyle explained.
Jade, a 17-year-old, provided ideas for the End Zone and has been inspired by Kyle’s commitment to community service to pay it forward with a special project of her own.
Her mother, Shonna Gacke, wrote a note about how the involvement in the End Zone so positively impacted Jade.
For kids with critical, life-threatening illnesses, they may not feel like they have a voice or say in what is happening; you gave that to her, and I can’t thank you enough for that.
Kyle demonstrated care and concern for others much earlier in life. When he was about Jade’s age, he was a multisport standout at Elder High School in Cincinnati.
He remains a supporter of the program, providing a major financial donation for the school’s athletic facilities, but the connection to the program is even more personal.
Greg Wolber, whose son Jeffrey, now 23, was born with Spina Bifida, is confined to a wheelchair and is developmentally delayed.
Kyle made sure that Jeffrey was included and treated well, from giving Jeffrey a pair of football gloves to simple high-fives and fist bumps.
Kyle has since been able to send the family tickets to attend a Notre Dame game and to see the Vikings. He also still exchanges texts messages with Jeffrey.
Excerpts from Wolber’s letter:
A lot of kids in high school would ignore, snub or walk away from kids like Jeffrey. But not Kyle, he always made it a point to come over and say something to Jeffrey and shake his hand.
Jeffrey would text Kyle after watching a (Notre Dame) win on television and tell him “good game Kyle,” and Kyle would always text Jeffrey back.
He still responds to texts and texts Jeffrey to this day.
Guys like Kyle don’t come around very often. He is truly a class act. Even before he became a Viking.
Kyle explained, “I just always remember as a kid, even far younger than high school, I was always gifted athletically and not everyone else was. As a little kid, at times that can be hard. People can pick on you and cast you aside because you’re not gifted athletically and might not fit in. I just always tried to be there for those kinds of kids.”
Weis vividly recalled recruiting Kyle to Notre Dame, together taking the first steps of an everlasting bond between the coach and player that went well beyond the gridiron.
Weis considers Kyle an honorary son, and Kyle believes there’s been no better second father figure in his life.
Weis wrote with parent-like pride:
You already exhibited that special quality of helping others. You grew from a leader of the freshman class to a leader of the program. You had already begun a life of community service without even knowing it. You were already a positive role model for our team. As I taught our team’s players about community service and the impact they could have off the field, I often used you as an example.
Of all the players that I have been involved with in 37 years of coaching, no one has done more for others than you.
As a guy who coached in the NFL for 16 years … I believe you would be the perfect choice to receive the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Kyle said Weis has been “one of the big role models in my life and someone who taught me a lot about service.”
“The way that he lives his life and how he serves others, doing so much for the special needs community, and what Hannah and Friends has been able to do for the South Bend community,” Kyle said. “Now that they’ve lived in South Florida, how much they’ve been able to do not just with kids with special needs, but adults. Now they’ve moved on to a military initiative and helping veterans with special needs. His heart never stops. I try to make him proud and do what I can to help others.
“I’ve always told him that he’s been like a father figure to me,” Kyle added. “When you go into a kid’s home at 16 years old and start the recruiting process — a lot of college coaches tell parents that they’re going to be father figures. Some are, some aren’t, but he truly was to me and still is to this day.”
Kyle Rudolph: Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Nominee
View photos of Kyle Rudolph accepting the nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award with his family.
Vikings Executive Director of Social Impact Brett Taber announced Kyle’s selection to Twin Cities media members, and Owner/President Mark Wilf presented Kyle with the award for Vikings Community Man of the Year.
“I’ve been with the Vikings for 12 years,” Taber said. “In that time, I’ve seen no player that has embraced this community more, given more of their time, their money, their celebrity to making this community and world a better place, so thank you, Kyle, for that.
Kyle thanked the Wilf family for setting an example that encourages Vikings players to positively impact the community.
“What you guys have built here from a facilities standpoint, obviously, but from a personnel standpoint is second to none,” Rudolph said. “Without your guys’ leadership, we wouldn’t have the drive and the opportunity to do the things that we do in the community, so thank you for that.”
He also thanked previous teammates who took a fresh-faced 21-year-old under their wing immediately in 2011, noting the influence of previous Vikings Community Man of the Year winners Steve Hutchinson, John Sullivan and Chad Greenway.
“On behalf of our family, it truly is our pleasure to do the things that we do. … [Recognition isn’t the reason] we do the work that we do,” Kyle said. “Jordan and I are extremely passionate about kids, and we do what we can do to help them be just that. They’re not in the circumstances they’re in for a reason. These diseases and cancers that they’re fighting don’t discriminate. They didn’t choose to have their childhoods taken away from them for a short period of time or some for a long period of time. The biggest thing we try to do is provide these kids with an opportunity to be kids. They shouldn’t live their lives any different than [my children], and that’s having fun and living each day to its fullest.”